Earlier today Philip Bump wrote wrote a smarter version of an argument that's been used to explain how Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) could lose the first four primaries but win the nomination. In 1992, Bill Clinton "was similarly in a splintered field, which took a long time to work itself out. This doesn't map one-to-one -- there was no candidate that had a 2-1-1-1 strategy, as Donald Trump does -- but it reinforces the central idea: This thing is necessarily complex."
If I can agree in part and dissent in part: 1992 was even more complex than this year. There was, obviously, no Donald Trump in 1992. (It was one of the very few years he did not threaten to run for president.) Rubio has now lost three contests in a row to the same candidate. Clinton did not. To recap:
Iowa. In 1992, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) made his only, sputtering bid for president. That made the Iowa caucuses irrelevant -- Clinton and every other competitive Democrat skipped them and headed to New Hampshire, letting Harkin win 77.2 percent of the vote. Clinton won 2.5 percent, his lowest total of the process.
New Hampshire. Everyone's familiar with the "comeback kid" campaign. Clinton, who at times was seen as impossibly wounded by scandal, won 24.8 percent of the vote. Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), who had retired from politics eight years earlier than returned as a sort of deficit hawk, won with 33.2 percent.
Maine. Yes, Maine was the third state to vote that year. They were targeted early by Jerry Brown, making his third and most successful (read: still unsuccessful) bid for president, winning 33.5 percent of the caucus total and pipping local hero Tsongas by 51 actual votes. Clinton ran behind "uncommitted," with 16.5 percent.
South Dakota. I'm not kidding, this was the fourth state to hold a contest in 1992. It was won by yet another local hero, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who flopped in most of the country but took 40.2 percent of the vote in his neighboring state. Clinton ran third, with 19.2 percent.
In the parlance of our time, Clinton's run through the first four states gave him a 4-2-4-3 record -- objectively worse than Rubio's. But Clinton's losses were regional, and somewhat expected. You will not find Clinton advisers, in 1992, whispering to reporters about a "firewall" in the badlands.
Contrast that with Rubio. In May 2015, before Rubio officially entered the race, CNN summed up the wisdom of Rubio advisers as "win Nevada after going 0-3 to open the race so that Rubio survives to compete in his home state primary." Through the year, as pundits mistakenly expected Donald Trump to collapse and Jeb Bush to find a pulse, Nevada was seen as Rubio's first gold medal attempt.
"Rubio is one of the only candidates with personal ties to an early state, and he mentions often that he has more family in Nevada than he does in Miami," reported National Review's Elaina Plott in December. "But according to those interviewed, a Rubio victory, if it happens, will result from an organization acutely tailored to the Nevada political landscape."
It's still entirely possible for Rubio to build on his gains, become the main alternative to Donald Trump, and win the nomination. It's noteworthy than in both South Carolina and Nevada, voters who made up their minds in the final week went for Rubio.
But it's also possible that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) could pull that off, and Cruz's team was more careful, in 2015, to frame February as a must-survive month before the must-win primaries of March. In the modern era of primaries, no one has lost three of the first four states to one candidate and gone on to beat him. Both Cruz and Rubio are in a position to try. Neither is in the shape Bill Clinton was at this point 24 years ago.